September 24, 2012

Professors Advance 3-D Printing Software, Create Virtual Characters

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While 3-D printing might sound futuristic, researchers say it may soon be a common household practice. Advancing the field of 3-D printing to new plateaus, Prof. Doug James, computer science, and colleagues have developed a program that can create physical 3-D models of virtual characters.

The team — which included James, Moritz Bächer, Harvard University, Prof. Hanspeter Pfister, Harvard University, and Prof. Bernd Bickel, Technische Universität Berlin — focused on how to improve software to enable scientists to create layered, three-dimensional models, usually out of plastic.

Previously, 3-D printers were limited to creating rigid objects, such as cubes, according to James. But now, the researchers have built models that can move just like characters do in the virtual world, he said.

“One of the bottlenecks to the application of 3-D printing is the relative lack for design software for generating complex printable objects. James’ approach to automatically generating printable, articulated figures is a good example of what future computer-aided design tools will look like,” said Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The printer can be thought of as “an automatic toy generation tool,” James said. According to him, children will soon be able to create their own virtual characters and print them out to create toys.

3-D printers identify their models as patterns of minute cubes so small that they cannot be distinguished by the human eye, James said, adding that they “print” their products using a technique to create an outline called a “skinned mesh.” The skinned mesh provides the basic outline of the model, and the printer builds it according to the layout, James said.

He said the new means of measuring the mesh allows the printers to create interactive and moveable joints for characters that are similar to those of human beings.

The researchers have printed out a few models with the new software, including characters from the video game Spore. James said his favorite figure so far is a character from the game called Grumpy.

Such printers are becoming increasingly common in various fields, from education to industry — and they will become household items in the near future, according to James.

“Eventually, you’ll be able to pick them up from your local store,” he said.

James said that 3-D printers are rapidly dropping in price — and that some can now be purchased for under $1,000. A number of large-scale 3-D printing facilities also offer their services on the Internet, he added.

Debarghya Das ’15, a computer science major, called 3-D printing “technology’s next big thing.”

“Companies like Makerbot have come up with 3-D printing file sharing now. Can you imagine being able to send your friend that rare screwdriver he needed from halfway across the world?” Das said. “The concept of being able to make anything you need right from home is mind-blowing.”

Original Author: Kritika Oberoi

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